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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Darién Lowlands

2014 Narrative

In Brief: Panama’s vast and sparsely populated Darien Province contains some of the most remote and wild lowland and montane wilderness remaining in Central America.  From the end of the highway in the port town of Yaviza to the mountains along the Colombian border there are virtually no roads, and the local Embera people use small dugout canoes to travel around and transport their goods.  In early 2014 the Canopy Tower company completed work on a comfortable permanent tented camp near the end of the highway surrounded by an excellent forest reserve that protects the watershed for the small town of Sanson.  These large tents, positioned on hardwood platforms with decks that give excellent views of the surrounding forest offer individual bathrooms and showers, electricity and full sized very comfortable beds.  The camp grounds have been heavily planted with flowering and fruiting plants, and we awoke each morning to the sounds of calling Black-mandibled and Keel-billed Toucans, Streak-headed and Cocoa Woodpeckers and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas (a small colony of which was located above the central dining area).  Each night calling Pauraques, or Mottled, Black-and-White or Crested Owls sang us to sleep.  Our inaugural visit to the camp was wonderful, from the 20 species of hummingbirds (a surprising number given the lowland nature of the trip), to fine views of the enigmatic Sapayoa on the first day in the Nusagandi Valley and a host of local specialties that are found only in the far east of Panama and adjacent areas of Colombia.  Black Oropendola, Black Antshrike and Double-banded Graytail were particular treats, though our views of perched Spectacled Parrotlets, and Golden-green and Spot-breasted Woodpeckers were hard to beat too.  Bird of the trip honors went to the Sapayoa, but an exquisite male Ruby Topaz (a species not even illustrated in the Panama Field Guide) was a close second.  In all we recorded 291 species, an amazing total for 6 days in the field with no visits to the coast, and also enjoyed some mammals such as Geoffrey’s Tamarins (with babies) and a foraging Neotropical River Otter.  These areas in the Darien are little explored and I am sure that the creation of a comfortable lodge here will produce a lot of new discoveries.  I very much look forward to returning next spring!

In Detail: We started off the first WINGS visit to the newly constructed Canopy Camp Darien by Nusagandi.  Here a nicely paved road leaves the Pan-American Highway and then heads due north for the Caribbean coast, on the way crossing through some excellent foothill forest.  Near the continental divide a network of trails wind up and around short but steep sided hills covered in excellent forests that cloak the numerous meandering creeks.  With a local guide in tow we elected to check out one of the shorter trails in pursuit of our main target bird of the morning, the Sapayoa.  Once thought to be a manakin or a tyrant flycatcher this bird is now known to belong in its own family, closely related to the old world broadbills.  Nowhere common in its very limited range, the trails around Nusagandi offer perhaps the most reliable access to this enigmatic little bird. En route down to the creek we stopped to admire our first Keel-billed Toucans, and played for a few minutes with a largely uncooperative Blue-black Grosbeak.  Once at the creek we found conditions initially quiet, although a perched male Black-throated Trogon and a displaying Blue-crowned Manakin were well appreciated.  After a short wait though we coaxed a nice sized flock into view.  We enjoyed views of Olive Tanagers, White-flanked Antwren, Olive-striped Flycatcher and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers before hearing the distinctive calls of a Sapayoa.  Within a minute or two we spotted our quarry perched fairly close to us in the mid-story.  This deep olive-green bird, with a golden sheen on the nape and crown, and a yellowish blush to the underparts is much more attractive than the field guides would suggest! We watched the Sapayoa as it thoroughly showed off for quite a while and were surprised to see another briefly join it.  Elated with our success we backtracked to the main road and spent a few hours walking the forest edge, spying birds like Plumbeous Kite, Short-billed Pigeon, Slaty-tailed Trogon and Slate-colored Grosbeak.  On the drive back down the road towards the highway we stopped when we heard bird activity and were rewarded with a large tanager flock that contained numerous Sulphur-rumped Tanagers along with Bay-breasted, Black-and-Yellow and a pair of Rufous-winged.  Also with this flock were a cooperative Rufous Mourner, Shining Honeycreeper, Scarlet-thighed and Blue Dacnis, and Tawny-capped Euphonia!  As we boarded the van to head for lunch we were pulled away one more time to ogle a pair of Great Jacamars sitting near the road.  Their bright emerald green back with violet feathers in the scapulars and crown were glowing in the midday sun, and it was hard to tear ourselves away.  As we descended back to the highway we spotted a soaring King Vulture and several elegant American Swallow-tailed Kites, wrapping up a really enjoyable morning!  About an hour and a half later we stopped at a small restaurant in Torti, where hummingbird feeders and some large trees made for some excellent birding while we waited for lunch.  At the feeders were several Black-throated Mangos, vying for food with Rufous-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, a few Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds and a female Sapphire-throated Hummingbird.  In the gardens there seemed no end to the bird diversity.  Every few minutes during lunch we’d spot something else, from Bananaquits and Plain-colored Tanagers at the flowers, to a Pearl Kite perched above us, or a pair of Boat-billed Flycatchers catching cicadas to feed young at the nest.  The highlight for me though was a Black-bellied Wren (surely one of the most attractive wrens) foraging along a fenceline in the open for several minutes.  This species is often quite wary, lurking around in dense vine tangles and never really showing well, so our views of it were truly exceptional.    We arrived at the camp in the early evening, with time to get acquainted with the cabins and grounds, enjoy a truly wonderful meal of homemade tamales, and then drift off to sleep, serenaded by a calling Crested Owl and a chorus of frogs that had likely enjoyed the late afternoon rain.

For the second day of the tour we elected to spend our time birding the camp grounds, trails and entrance road.  This turned out to be an excellent choice, as we tallied an amazing amount of diversity (over 100 species) during the day!  In the early morning we were slightly hampered by an unseasonable rain shower, but we spent the time comfortably under the deck watching the surrounding treetops and hummingbird feeders while staying dry.  At the feeders were a nice assortment of hummers, including several Pale-bellied Hermits and Long-billed Starthroats that shared their time with smaller species such as Blue-chested, Sapphire-throated and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.  Perched up in the surrounding trees were many Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, and just overhead a small colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas (and their attendant Piratic Flycatchers) kept us entertained as well.  Once the rain cleared we set out on a circular walk around the camp grounds, where we found a nesting pair of Rufous-breasted Hermits, some sprightly Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers, a cooperative Bright-rumped Attila that came into our tape carrying a hapless Anole, a pair of Gray-headed Kites drying out in the morning sun, and several Mealy and Red-lored Parrots.  It seemed like everywhere we looked new species were popping into view, from Long-tailed Tyrants atop bare snags to Violet-bellied Hummingbird and Blue-throated Goldentail foraging in the Verbenas.  A short stroll near the entrance gate into more open habitats was productive as well, with several Streaked Flycatchers, Black-chested Jays, a foraging Lineated Woodpecker and several perched Plumbeous Kites.  In the mid-morning we walked into the adjacent forest on one of the camp trails and within minutes were watching displaying Golden-collared and Golden-headed Manakins on their leks.  Further down the trail in a big patch of Heliconia plants we tangled with a pair of Bare-crowned Antbirds, and spotted a singing Plain-brown Woodcreeper.   Ruddy Pigeons sang from the treetops as we watched a Whooping Motmot flick its tail back and forth like a pendulum, and just before we turned back to head for lunch a pair of Ochre-bellied Flycatchers put on a nice show, repeatedly raising their wings.  En route back to camp we were delayed by a mixed flock that contained our first Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, White-shouldered Tanagers and, for some, quick views of a pair of Double-banded Graytails.

After lunch and a nice siesta we walked out the entrance road to the lodge, where we stopped for quite a while along a small creek that was alive with birds.  Neotropical migrants like Red-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, several attractive Bay-breasted Warblers, Yellow and Tennessee Warblers and lots of Summer Tanagers joined a feeding Red-rumped Woodpecker, dazzling Purple-crowned Fairy and a Forest Elaenia in a parade of color.  Once out into the open we turned to the sky and were rewarded with a nice movement of raptors and swallows, all heading west towards Costa Rica.  The bulk of the birds were Turkey Vultures, but with some scanning through the throngs we picked out Swainson’s, Broad-winged and Short-tailed Hawks, and several Plumbeous Kites.  The common swallows were Gray-breasted Martin and Barn Swallow, but with some careful scrutiny we picked out small numbers of Southern Rough-winged and Cliff Swallows, and a male Purple Martin.  The fields and brush along the road held our first Smooth-billed Ani, White-winged and Cinnamon Becards, and a nice pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars.  Flowering trees along the walk were productive too, with Bananaquit, Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonia, and a pair of the attractive White-eared Conebills (restricted in North America to the Darien region). Just as we returned to the camp we were in for a final surprise, as one of the participants spotted an unbelievably tame Little Tinamou walking on the side of the road on a small slope.  The bird spent some time hiding behind a tree stump, craning around to get a good look at us, but eventually it strolled right out in front of us, walking up to the edge of the path and then flew right through the group to the other side of the road.  Little Tinamous are vocally conspicuous throughout their large range but are generally very difficult to see, let alone see so well! The day was a great testament to the care taken by the canopy camp owners in selecting a site for their new lodge, as the mix of habitats is excellent here!

Near the camp in the adjoining Embara Indian Comarca lie many dirt roads into the Darien.  Although extensive clearing is unfortunately taking place these roads offer excellent access into a wide mix of habitats, from cleared agricultural pastures to scrub, secondary forest and even some remaining patches of lowland primary forest.  We spent the next two days exploring these incredibly rich areas, north of the Rio Cuchanaqui. On our first morning here we began by walking through some mostly cleared areas, where we familiarized ourselves with such open country species as Shiny and Giant Cowbirds, Pale-vented Pigeon, Great Kiskadee and Plain-breasted and Ruddy Ground Doves.  Soon we began walking through scrubbier fields, where Ruddy-breasted and Variable Seedeaters joined displaying Blue-black Grassquits and Yellow-bellied Elaenias.  At a small creek crossing we watched a pair of Buff-bellied Wrens foraging in the understory while Greater Anis cackled above us.  Shortly thereafter a pair of Chestnut-fronted Macaws flew overhead calling, providing a real treat for any bird tour in Panama.  Although several species of Macaw are still found in the far East of the country, sightings away from the foothill region are scarce, and any encounter with any of the species around a road system is noteworthy.  At the temporary dry season bridge over the river we paused to watch a Neotropical River Otter swimming in the main channel just below us, and then we continued on to the north bank of the river.   Mixed flocks became more numerous north of the channel, likely as the forest became a bit thicker along the road.  In our first good flock we were delighted to hear the distinctive calls of a pair of Double-banded Graytails that were much better behaved than the pair from the prior day.  We watched as the pair dropped down into the mid story, acrobatically clinging to leaves and poking along the leaf clusters in search of prey.  Just around the bend from that flock we spent almost an hour watching a continually revolving band of birds.  Although we initially stopped for a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers that were hammering away on some thin vines along the road we soon located a host of other interesting birds.  A pair of Black Antshrikes kept us entertained for a bit, with the oddly streaked female being a particular hit.  In a large branching tree over the road we located a perched Spectacled Parrotlet hiding amongst the leaves, and nearby a pair of One-colored Becards was noisily foraging.  Three range-restricted species all from one spot!  As we slowly drove further back we paused to admire a staked out Great Potoo on a day roost, before arriving at the little village of Nuevo Vigia.  Here we picked up a local Embara guide and set off down an unmarked trail towards a small oxbow lake.  The trail passed through a dry deciduous forest thick with vine tangles.  Within a few yards of starting down the track we were delayed by a Little Cuckoo, quite a scarce bird in Panama, as it crossed back and forth in front of us.  Once in the viny forest we began looking for Gray-cheeked Nunlets, and soon enough we were looking at a pair of perched birds tucked into a cluster of vines.  Their red orbital rings, rich coppery chests and gray cheeks combine to make quite an attractive package.  Also here was a pair of unusually cooperative Great Antshrikes, a sprightly Black-tailed Flycatcher and several calling White-bellied Antbirds.  We reached the small oxbow lake in short order and immediately began tallying new birds.  At our approach we flushed several Anhingas, a Rufescent Tiger Heron and a beautiful Capped Heron that perched up for us to admire.  The shallow water was full of feeding fish, providing excellent foraging opportunities for kingfishers.  With some diligent searching along the banks we obtained scope views of the two most elusive Kingfishers in the new world; the beautiful Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher and the diminutive but equally dazzling American Pygmy Kingfisher! We then backtracked to the lodge for lunch and a siesta, and in the mid-afternoon set off back down the same road for a stop backat the Embara village of Nuevo Vigia, where we supported the local economy by purchasing some baskets and masks from the local weavers.  Our main quarry of the afternoon though was the local and surprisingly beautiful Black Oropendola.  A few weeks before our tour the local guides at the camp found an active nesting colony of these impressive birds down a logging road past the village.  These dirt logging roads offer access to the dry deciduous forests of the central Darien, a habitat that is unfortunately quickly disappearing.  Huge Ceiba trees still protrude from the mostly secondary forests along the road, and it was in one of these magnificent trees, which look like they were uprooted and then planted upside down that the Oropendolas had made a colony.  Over thirty long woven nests dangled from the tree, and we saw several displaying males and even more females active around the colony site.  Black Oropendolas are restricted to eastern Panama and adjacent parts of Colombia, and outside of the Darien are infrequently encountered.  That is unfortunate, as their glossy black underparts, burgundy mantle and incredibly bright face pattern, with blue cheeks, and red/pink wattles and forecrowns make for a truly attractive bird!  Once done with the Oropendolas, and a nearby colony of nesting Yellow-rumped Caciques (which, as is typical, had built their colony around a large hornet nest), we drove back towards the camp with a brief stop at another oxbow lake.  Much larger than the forested lake we visited earlier, this one was also well vegetated and was simply swarming with Wattled Jacanas (here of the all black mantled form), as well as a Green Heron, a few Rufescent Tiger-Herons and a single Gray-necked Wood-Rail.  We heard a few White-throated Crakes in the taller vegetation but were unsuccessful in coaxing them into view.  At the far end of the lake was a Green Ibis lurking in the denser emergent vegetation, and atop a small post was a stunning Black-collared Hawk (restricted to the Darien in North America, and not at all common there). 

On our second day along the new logging roads near Nuevo Vigia we unfortunately came face to face with the rapid pace of deforestation currently underway in the Embara Comarca.  Apparently a tribal chief sold the logging concession for the area a decade ago, and a Chinese company has been pulling out as much wood as feasible ever since.  Trucks carrying huge logs were all too common, and crews of loggers were regular along the road.  This rampant deforestation is bad for the locals and the wildlife, and serves as a reminder on how not to go about resource extraction in biologically rich areas.  Despite the depressing deforestation the area we found a wealth of birds.  We spent most of the day alternately driving and walking the sandy road through the forest, stopping where conditions looked good.  At our first stop we tracked down a calling Striped Cuckoo perched in a bare tree, and nearby marveled at a fruiting bush that contained a wealth of tanagers, including a stunning male Flame-rumped.  Once in the forest we finally managed to coax a Bare-crowned Antbird into view, a beautiful if maddeningly shy species.  A nice mixed flock just moments later allowed us lengthy studies of tiny Pied Puffbirds, and of a pair of the much larger Barred Puffbird.   At another flock, comprised mostly of Dot-winged and White-flanked Antwrens we were pleased to find a female Golden-green Woodpecker feeding in a vine tangle.  This very well marked and colorful species is not common in Panama, and was one of the group’s favorite birds of the trip.  A small flock of Chestnut-fronted Macaws flew over calling, surely a testament to the quality of the remaining forest here.  Mixed flocks later in the morning held a pair of vocal Stripe-throated Wrens, which soon revealed themselves in a column of vines, our only Rufous-winged and Moustached Antwrens, and both Plain and Streaked Xenops.  Investigating one of the small rivers that drain the surrounding hills we found a great variety of fishes, including a pair of cichlids tending their brood of black-banded young.  In the afternoon we walked into the forest along a small dry streambed stopping to admire an inquisitive Song Wren, a Russet-winged Schiffornis (which have violet irises!) and a couple of Rufous Pihas before arriving at a small pool.  Here we paused for an hour, watching from a sheltered vantage point as birds came in to drink or bathe in the heat.  The most conspicuous species was Golden-headed Manakin, with 4 males and several females repeatedly coming in and perching on the dangling vines above the pool.  These shiny black birds, with bright yellow heads and red thighs are truly spectacular.  As we drove out of the forest in the late afternoon we noted several perched raptors along the road, including a couple of Laughing Falcons, a Crane Hawk, and our first Double-toothed Kite.

The next day we journeyed a bit farther east along the Pan-American highway to bird the El Salto Rd.  This short road runs northeast from the highway to the banks of the Cuchanaqui River, giving the local Embera access to the road system.  It is little traveled, and passes through a mix of older second growth forest and teak plantations.  The forest here is more open than that of the areas near Nuevo Vigia, and in the early morning many birds were perched up in the emergent canopy.  Here we obtained views of Scaled Pigeons and White-tailed and Black-tailed Trogons.  White-bellied Antbirds were abundant in the denser understory patches, and with patience we eventually drew them out into the semi-open.  Mixed flocks were around as well, with a few new species like Ocellated Piculet, Yellow-backed and Orange-crowned Orioles, Fulvous-vented Euphonia and ephemeral views of a Western Sirystes.  Raptor migration was again in evidence, with Broad-winged Hawks and Mississippi Kites appearing overhead.  On a short trail through dry and relatively short forest, laden with vines and fallen dry leaves that followed along the riverbank we located a small antswarm of Red Army Ants that was attended by a pair of Gray-headed Tanagers, several Black-chested Jays and two Northern Barred Woodcreepers.   Unlike the previous few days, which had been quite cloudy the morning was clear on Day 5, and as the heat began to climb we returned to the camp for lunch and a short siesta.  At the appointed hour for our afternoon departure though all plans changed somewhat as one of the participants had elected to spend the siesta hour photographing hummingbirds at the flowering verbena plants along the camp access road.  Soon after he arrived, a large and dazzling hummingbird dropped from the nearby trees chasing off the smaller Blue-throated Goldentail that had been holding a territory.  The newcomer proved to be a male Ruby Topaz, one of the most attractive hummingbirds in the world, and a real rarity for Panama (it is not even pictured in the Field Guide).  The deep carmine head, with an odd slightly bushy crest, electric gold gorget, and flashy orange tail make for a bird that is hard to forget.  With the flat afternoon light and against a wealth of green and small purple flowers this gorgeous hummer really put on a show.  This individual (Panama’s 4th record, and first adult male) had been found in mid January by another birding group visiting the camp, but was believed to have disappeared as the dry season wore on, so we were thrilled to encounter it.  Eventually we pulled ourselves away and headed to the south, over the ridge behind the camp and into a drier open valley filled with small streams and open ranchland.  We were heading for a small remnant marsh (apparently much larger in the wet season), but en route were continually waylaid by small flocks of birds coming in to the creeks to bathe and drink in the afternoon heat.  Dozens of Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-Finches, Palm, Crimson-backed and Blue-gray Tanagers, Plain-breasted and Ruddy Ground-Doves, Limpkin, and even a Rufescent Tiger-Heron were all appropriately ogled before we reached the small ranch house.  Switching into a modified 4X4 Pickup with bench seating in the bed we then drove out over the pastures towards the marsh, with stops to admire Red-breasted Blackbirds and a perched Bat Falcon.  Once at the marsh we marveled at the impressive density of Spectacled Caiman lurking in the shallow water.  Our collective attention was soon diverted by an array of new bird species.  Two Yellow-hooded Blackbirds perched up in the brush adjacent to the water, and almost a dozen of the cute and sprightly Pied Water-Tyrants plied the shoreline.  Amid the dozens of Wattled Jacanas were an assortment of migrant shorebirds, including Pectoral, Stilt and Least Sandpipers and a Lesser Yellowlegs.  Cattle Egrets were numerous, but we especially enjoyed our first Striated and Cocoi Herons, and two feeding Snowy Egrets.  As the sun began to set over the savannahs we watched as Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures and a hovering White-tailed Kite plied the reddening sky and then we turned home for the camp, with a brief delay as we crossed a particularly large creek in reverse.

We left the camp on the last day a little after breakfast, making the two-hour drive back west to an isolated mountain range that has been protected by an expat American preacher, and dubbed the San Francisco Nature Park.   The protected area encompasses nearly the entire mountain range, but we accessed merely a small fraction of the park, walking up a running creek through some humid forest with a lot of flowering trees.  Before entering the woods we paused at a hidden pond where we found three Boat-billed Herons, a foraging adult Purple Gallinule and some very cooperative Greater Anis.  Despite arriving mid-morning there was still a lot of activity along the trail.  At the initial creek crossing we located a courting pair of Blue Ground-Doves, a perched White-vented Plumeleteer in a dense Heliconia thicket, and a real treat in the form of a pair of responsive Royal Flycatchers.  Further up the trail we found a mixed flock that contained a pair of Long-billed Gnatwrens and one of our main target species, the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet (which is unlikely to win any bird beauty contests) that was evasive bouncing around in the canopy.  A mixed flock of migrant warblers was a nice treat as well, with Black-and-White, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Cerulean and Golden-winged all in view.  We played with a vocalizing Western Sirystes that remained frustratingly out of view for about a half-hour (though a pair of Broad-billed Motmots and a calling Gartered Trogons served as good consolation prizes).  Perhaps the best and most surprising species though was a young male (or older female) Rufous-crested Coquette that was feeding quietly on some understory pink flowers.  After lunch back in Torti we continued west towards Panama City with one last stop along a trail just east of Lake Bayano.  This relatively short dry forest is managed by the Kuna people, who seem less intent on logging.  Here, in a short hour of birding we studied a very approachable Double-toothed Kite, and found our first White-breasted Wood-Wren and Red-capped Manakins.   It was a pleasant way to cap off an enjoyable week in eastern Panama.

Created: 04 April 2014